Music / The Berkshire Review in San Francisco

Walton’s Violin Concerto and Holst’s “The Planets” at the San Francisco Symphony with Dutoit and Barantschik

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Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony
Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, February 13, 2010

Charles Dutoit, Conductor
Alexander Barantschik, Violin
Women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Ragnar Bolin, Director

Sir William Walton, Violin Concerto
Gustav Holst, Suite For Orchestra,”The Planets”

1939 must have been the year neoclassic front ranks gave up on William Walton. Here was the “English Stravinsky”, who had burst forth with silvery elbow-wit in “Facade” and scandalized church officials in “Belshazzar’s Feast.” More recently, his First Symphony had transformed telegraphic rhythm into sheer motorized power, gleaming and heartless. (only the finale, composed late and omitted at the premiere, had hinted at something more sensual and cinematic) The earlier Viola Concerto had parsed-out like the cleanest Hindemith, moving because of its beauty, but bereft of the senses.

Now, suddenly, the Violin Concerto and…no denying it…Korngold-like sentiment and soaring, open-hearted melodic lines that could have been penned by Glazunov. For the rest of his life, Walton’s music would speak a more openly emotional language, and modernists would insist he had unwound his musical evolution. Indeed, some of the writing in “Troilus And Cressida” (1955) would eventually sound closer to Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” and Jacques Ibert’s “The Flower Clock” than to anything Stravinsky ever wrote. (Bryden Thomson synthesized a fine suite from the opera for Chandos, collectors will note.)

The concerto Walton presented to listeners in 1939 carries a salient feature, common in mid-twentieth century concerti, of seldom using full orchestra to state its lyrical themes. This is probably the reason why audiences remember the music less well than in similar works by Elgar, Barber or Korngold. Walton’s orchestral outbursts largely punctuate or complete phrases, and the violin soloist supplies the lyricism in between.

Alexander Barantschik, I am happy to report, did more than this on Saturday night. Indeed, he brought forth a patrician reading of the highest order, ably accompanied by Charles Dutoit. Barantschik is well-known to international audiences and possesses exclusive use of the Guarneri del Gesù once owned by Jascha Heifetz, who recorded with it the Walton world premiere in 1947. Indeed, Heifetz commissioned the music and insisted that it be made difficult to a proprietary degree—nearly no one else could play it.

In Barantschik’s hands, Heifetz’s violin can still deliver its higher registers with a ravishingly pure and perfect sonority. You really do recognize the instrument in playing of this quality, and it gives one the shivers. There the similarity ends, however. Heifetz was a sort of Toscanini or Horowitz of the bow, jumping into the next bar a bit early and percussively, then finishing with a very consciously fleet flourish. It was those quicksilver moments people remember. (Try on for size the opening violin entrance in Heifetz’ Brahms Violin Concerto recording, with Reiner, for fleetness, or the Arensky Trio he recorded with Pennario and Piatagorsky, for the very meaning of suavity! ) Barantschik, by contrast, seems more like a Bernard Haitink of the violin, insightful but steady in slightly unbending dignity, unwilling to wear either his heart or his nervous energy on his sleeve, but absolutely pure in his intonation. (Indeed, I’ve never heard better.) And, where others might phrase romantically across a bar line, Barantschik will tend to favor shorter, clearer delivery.

There is a spot in the first movement where this observation becomes a rare criticism. Immediately after the first of several cadenzas, Walton seems to take his listeners out on the dance floor. Readers who own the Joshua Bell performance will feel themselves slither across the room in a slow and swively midnight clinch, perhaps looking down their partner’s dress. Bell seems to remember that Walton gave up academics for a year to play in a dance band. The composer famously insisted that his music swept no metaphysical horizons, but was simply about his girlfriends!

In Alexander Barantschik’s performance, nobody is dancing, and the point of having written all those muffled and gymbally drumbeats into the accompaniment is lost. In fairness, most performances miss this, and that includes Heifetz, Chung and Tasmin Little. Taken as a whole, Barantschik and Dutoit do nearly full justice to this work, soaring out in the finale, with its beautifully ornamented theme, (done less awkwardly than Heifetz, but not so romantically as Bell.) Walton’s eclecticism turns out to have been more prescient and humanly satisfying than the dry theories which took issue with it. A fine piece of music is alive and well after 71 years!

But noticing real sensuality in Walton reminds us that it is rare in English music. “Troilus And Cressida’s” love music, for instance, seems more about bed-frames banging into walls than anything else. There is nothing smarmy about it, but it is unusually direct for an Englishman and seems to reflect an unembarrassed romantic personality, rather more than usual. There is little sexual or hedonistic feeling, for example, in Elgar’s or Vaughan Williams’ music, despite great emotional warmth.

In Holst’s case, one might argue, neither sex NOR warmth! Indeed, it cuts both ways. Holst’s output is about as silvery-cold as the spheres. This makes for an effective orchestral style in works like “The Perfect Fool” and “The Planets”, but it explains why nothing else of his ever caught-on, except for the band suites. Holst knew his music failed to evoke emotion and complained of it to Vaughan Williams.

“The Planets, though, is a work ideally suited for what it sets out to do, and it does it better than any imitator. Only Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring” and Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” can equal “Mars” for being constructed out of rhythm itself, and nothing can out-hammer it….not Respighi in “Dance of The Gnomes”, nor John Williams, trying to steal from from “Dance of The Gnomes”! Also, Holst’s brass, woodwind and harp sonorities in this work are so interesting, that stasis seems purposeful. This takes genius.

Charles Dutoit made a superb recording of “The Planets” at the dawn of the digital era. His performance on Saturday with The San Francisco Symphony was, if anything, even better. This orchestra has always performed forcefully for Dutoit. A “Rite Of Spring” in Davies Hall twenty years ago turned out to be far more violent than Dutoit’s Montreal Symphony recording, then just completed. So it was on Saturday.

Dutoit set a pace fractionally slower than average for “Mars”, nothing near so fast as Steinberg’s famous tempo with the Boston Symphony, but I expect an army coming at one might sound more like Dutoit. Davies Hall, a real acoustic success in the round, and much louder than your average shoebox auditorium, could not be better suited for this piece. The sonic force was truly overwhelming, and the percussionists were grinning at each other as they tore into things. Not the least was the magnificent contribution of the organ, there and throughout.

“Venus”, the second movement of the suite, almost always makes its serene mark, and, indeed, its beauty came through here, albeit a touch heavily.

“Mercury” was just right, and Maestro Dutoit’s very French facial expression on the last note of it was priceless.

The central French Horn tune in “Jupiter”, though, suffered a bit from forcing. A fine, unheralded recording by Sir Charles Mackerras with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic gets this right through understatement and by leaving subtle pauses in-between the “verses” of the hymn. The effect is noble, nostalgic and moving, and I commend the recording to anyone who doesn’t know it. Many conductors force this tune and somehow make it contribute to the general brutality. James Levine, I unhappily report, is one of the worst culprits.

“Saturn” is always one of the most effective movements in “The Planets”, because it is so dramatically cheerless. Dutoit took a slow and emphatic approach to the sound of decrepitude dragging by…When frantic undulations of the tubular bells signalled the approaching final climax, he permitted the devastation of age truly and slowly to shatter. Most conductors rush through this. Dutoit held back a bit, to superior effect.

“Uranus”, the Magician, is essentially a very English-sounding modal “proletarian”march, rendered interesting by bizarre brass, percussion and woodwind syncopations. It’s central climax is the closest thing I’ve ever heard in music to the pulling-back and release of a slingshot. That doesn’t tell you very much, but I expect you will understand what I mean the next time you hear it. The performance was unimproveable.

“The Planets'” final “Neptune” movement was done with wonderful subtlety, and Ragnar Bolin’s off-stage chorus proved itself the most perfectly judged I’ve yet heard, fading into a fermata at the precise moment I could truly hear nothing further.

This was an immensely satisfying concert, just about every seat being taken, and I’m happy to report that it brought out fair numbers of the young. This is often the case in San Francisco, as in Boston, yet it was especially heartening to look up and see a young couple seriously canoodling over the trombones during the finale of the Walton. They were still at it as the chorus faded away in “The Planets.”

Perhaps English music is about sex, after all. Perhaps most music is.

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